Hi everyone, if it’s your first time here, you can read about the background of my story here in the Memoire Page. You can also find the previous chapters by clicking on the Memoire category (it’s different from the page) located in the black band at the top of the website between “The Family” and “The House.”
If you’d like to receive the weekly chapter installments, you can like my Facebook page, follow my RSS feed, or subscribe by e-mail (those buttons on the right-hand side). Thanks for reading!
“He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”
For me, Paris was not “the city of lights.” It wasn’t even “the city of love” in spite of the fact that I was going there ostensibly for that reason. No, Paris was about being reunited with Olivier in hopes that our relationship would finally flourish and lead to something more permanent. I couldn’t get out of Taiwan fast enough in my desperation to throw myself into his arms and let him rescue me from the pit I had been living in. Paris could have just as easily have been Wichita, Kansas. It could have been Mongolia for all I cared.
I planned a quick visit to the States in between moving countries. I had just one week and a half to put off my Asian self and don my Parisian self (never mind taking the time to find my authentic self). I was still very unbalanced, and on my girls night out to see Forest Gump in the movie theatre, I spent a good portion of it almost hyperventilating in the bathroom stall, in quiet, heaving sobs as I tried to steady my emotions before going back in. I didn’t know why I was so sad when I had someplace to go.
Finally the long-awaited day arrived, and I paced the airport terminal impatiently, dressed in my carefully-chosen baggy jeans and cranberry-colored shirt, my hair freshly permed in long wavy curls. But the reunion I was desperate for was destined to wait another day, as the airline company had overbooked the flight and I was one of the unfortunate people who got bumped. I would have given up my $500 flight certificate plus the free night and meals in a luxury hotel gladly, just to be able to leave on time.
When I arrived in Paris, I fell laughing into Olivier’s arms where the world felt right again. We got directly on the TGV headed for Angers, and there received a very formal welcome from his parents. I was the first girl Olivier had ever brought home, and I suppose it was quite a jump for them to skip the intermediate step of a casual after-school girlfriend to one that would be living with them every single weekend, for that’s what we had decided. He would do his military service in La Rochelle during the week while I stayed in Paris for my studies, and we’d then meet up at his parent’s house on the weekends.
His family owned a beautiful, old townhouse with a dark wooden staircase leading up to the second floor that held the office and parental suite, and then continued up to the third floor. This is where Olivier and his sister’s bedrooms were, along with a small bathroom. The living room downstairs had hard leather sofas and a cold tile floor, so we spent more time upstairs than anywhere else. When it was nice out, we could go through the small covered stone courtyard and have tea in the tiny garden in the back of the house.
Our meals were always formal, with a pretty cotton tablecloth and matching cloth napkins that we’d reuse for the entire weekend, each napkin distinguished by individual rings. I helped out where I could, cutting the garlic in slivers for the salad dressing, setting out the bottle of wine and filling the water carafe, scraping the bread crumbs from the tablecloth with a little bronze dustpan for that purpose. But I was hesitant to intrude – the kitchen was his mother’s domain; when she set out to cook in her elegant skirt and heels, her hands were busy and her mind preoccupied, and there was no room for me. I never felt fully at ease at Olivier’s house, but I was always grateful to be there. It was a home base that remained indifferent to me, but one I clung to desperately.
Very quickly after arriving in France, I took the train back to Paris. I was anxious to find my footing in the city where I would be living, and I needed to get an au pair position for the extra income and a place to live while studying. I’d heard that people posted their ads at the American Church, so I went there to scout out the various possibilities.
Sure enough, the large cork-board under the awning of the church was covered with little white index cards, differentiated at first glance only by the penmanship. I quickly scanned them, only slowing to read more thoroughly when something caught my eye. There were two ads that struck me as interesting: one was for a family that had a larger chambre de bonne. This was the servant’s room located on the top floor of a Parisian building and was generally used for au pairs, and this particular position included the luxury of a built in toilet/shower and kitchenette. The other family, whose number I also jotted down, lived in a nicer area and had five children.
I was equally pulled between those two positions. I was sure that a family with five kids was not going to expect me to wait on them hand and foot, whereas a family with one or two would very likely expect just that. At the same time, I knew how lucky I would be to have such comfortable accommodations in Paris, living in a proper studio.
I arranged to meet the large family first on a Friday afternoon, and found myself in front of a luxury Haussmannien building in the 16th arrondissement. I rang the doorbell and the door was opened by an elegant woman, whose thick blond hair was tied back with a black ribbon. She gave me a warm smile and ushered me in. Her name was Véronique.
“Would you like some coffee?” she asked me in fluent English. It was pouring rain outside.
“Yes, thank you,” I said smiling back. The living room was decorated in warm reds and browns and the lighting was so cozy, everything such a welcome contrast to the bleakness of the outdoors. As we talked, her oldest daughter came in and the introductions were made. She looked just like her mother.
In the short forty-five minute visit, which felt more like a reprieve than an interview, I shared about where I came from and told her about the other position I would be interviewing for after the weekend. She regretfully told me that she couldn’t compete with the large, equipped chambre de bonne, but I assured her that I would still consider her offer and let her know after the weekend. With such an immediate complicity between us, I didn’t want to dismiss the possibility of working for them.
I spent two nights in Angers, returning on Sunday afternoon to attend the second interview, where the mother’s demeanor stood in stark contrast to the first. She seemed proud and rigid, and her bearing seemed to say, “You will never be part of us – you will only work for us.” I didn’t like the way she coddled her daughter either.
Oh, but then I saw the studio, which was spacious, painted white, and well-lit with its large skylight. Everything about it was clean and cheerful. After a quick look around, my impulsive streak took over, and I accepted the position on the spot. I dismissed my internal warnings about the family and unpacked all my things straight away. Then I went to the corner market to buy groceries and basic cleaning supplies so the apartment would become a home.
Whatever qualms I had pushed down about my choice resurfaced when I returned to the family’s residence a few hours later, and the maid told me to watch out because this woman would try to take advantage of me and get me to work longer hours if I was not careful. That was all that was needed to remind me of how unfriendly this woman was compared to the first one, and to get me to doubt the decision I had made. I spent one very sleepless night in the new apartment, and by morning I was convinced I had made the wrong one.
So when I called Véronique at our appointed time, instead of giving a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to her offer, I explained my situation: I had taken the other job because I loved the studio apartment, but was already regretting my decision and wanted to come and work for her instead. And she basically said, “Okay, great!”
I am surprised she accepted someone so readily with such an obviously fickle character, but it ended up being a really good move for me. She told me that her husband would be by with the car to pick me up that evening, and that only left me with the unpleasant task of quitting the job I had just accepted.
“I’ve decided to take the other position instead of this one,” I said. “I don’t feel comfortable here.”
“Why?” she said, immediately taking offense. “You should have thought of that before you accepted.”
I launched into an incoherent explanation about my communications class in college and how my teacher taught me to not stay silent when I didn’t feel right about something . . . but she cut me off. “You’ve put me in a really awkward situation. Now I’m going to have to find someone else on short notice.”
“You said you had plenty of other interested people,” I protested.
“Yes, but I told them all the position was filled,” she answered wrathfully. I trudged up to the room to pack, feeling rather cowed and lonely, and it was it was with great relief that I saw the old station wagon pull up to the curb to whisk me off to my new home.
I loved this new family, who made me feel included as much by ignoring my presence as by treating me with affection. When the mother rebuked her children to sit upright at the table, I jumped upright along with the rest of them, which made her laugh. She said I was just like one of her own daughters, except that I was more obedient. With them, I learned many things about the French culture and about how to run a household – things like how to fold underwear or iron linens properly, how to cook traditional French meals. I soaked it all in – the family life, the rich culture, the classical language – it seemed to me if I could just grasp this and incorporate it into who I was, then I would finally be worth something.
I went to the Sorbonne in the mornings, and in the afternoon I picked the younger children up from their school. I would stand in the schoolyard watching the children pour out of the double doors, clothed in their navy blue shorts or skirts, their dark knee socks and white button-down shirts.
When I saw this flurry of happiness, the children running up to their beaming mothers, waving a drawing they had done, I felt an intense longing to have this life for myself. I wanted my own French children who would rush up to me, to whom I would be more than just the au pair. I wanted to belong to this country. But somehow when I looked around at the French mothers who seemed so put-together, living such vibrant lives, I knew I couldn’t compete.
The children and I walked home together, crossing the large avenue which overlooked the Arc de Triomphe. Their snack was usually an apple and a chunk of baguette with a strip of chocolate squares shoved through the soft interior. They ate this while walking and talking over each other, their mouths full of bits of apple. One would spot the new Twingo car, and rush to be the first to punch his brother, crying out, “Twingo bleu!” or “Twingo rouge!” according to the color of the car they saw.
When we arrived at the square near the vast Champ de Mars that held the Eiffel Tower, we’d turn onto our street and open the heavy wood and glass doors that led to the enclosed courtyard. Once through the marble corridor, we entered the warmly-lit interior, and from there climbed into the small elevator. We could have walked up – it was only on the fifth floor – but we usually chose the easy way and spilled out of the elevator onto the red carpeted hallway, a tangle of legs and backpacks, before turning to enter the large apartment on the left – the only one on that floor.
I helped them with their homework, made the dinner, and poured their baths before reading them bedtime stories in my faltering French. After my duties were done and I said goodnight to the family, I would go out the back door of the kitchen into the dark, rustic staircase with peeling paint and worn, wooden steps, and from there climbed the additional three flights to my room. The cheerful fuschia rug and bright light greeted me when I opened the door, and I would walk over to the tall windows that overlooked the Parisian rooftops, and stare at the view before closing the curtains.
My depression crept into this seemingly idyllic lifestyle. Too often, when I was not required to be somewhere, I would lie in my bed and stare at the ceiling. It might be daytime, with the sun shining, and I was in Paris, but I could only get up to take care of the children. I could only get up for my duty, not for myself.
I remember lying there and wanting to die. After what had happened to my brother, I didn’t want to take my own life, but I had no will to live it either. I imagined floating up to the heavens, attached to the life cord that connects you to the body – the way I read you could have an out-of-body experience. I would imagine floating far away from my body and letting go of the life cord, like a helium balloon released to float where the universe took it. It seemed like such a peaceful way to end my life. Week after week these thoughts murmured in my heart, barely discernible above my subconscious, as I lay alone in my room.
Sometime that Fall I went to the doctor for a sore throat, and unaware of my near-catatonic state, I explained the symptoms of my cold. The doctor observed me acutely for a moment in his cluttered office, then starting asking me questions to get me to talk about myself. I spoke blithely, numbly about car accidents and suicides and travel and feelings of rootlessness. Finally he said, “I am giving you a prescription for anti-depressants.”
I stared at him open-mouthed. I had no idea I was that depressed. I mean, medicine was one step away from mental institutions – surely not something for me. “Wh..what?” I said. “But isn’t that rather drastic?”
“No, it’s actually more common than you think,” he answered. “And given the past you’ve had with your brother and your head trauma, I think you need it.”
I walked out of there with a prescription for three months of Prozac, feeling very ashamed. My already low self esteem took a nosedive as I thought about what people would say if they knew. Not able to keep anything away from my boyfriend, I confessed my diagnosis haltingly to Olivier, who didn’t quite know how to take it. I also set up an appointment to meet with the minister of the American Church because I didn’t know who else to talk to.
I sat in his library, grateful for his time, and told him how messed up I was, barely able to confess, “I have been put on anti-depressants” through the deep shame that engulfed me. He looked at me with a kindly gleam in his eye, and without saying a word, he gave a mock gesture of self-flagellation – like he was whipping himself over his shoulder.
This made me laugh a little, in spite of how serious I felt. “You mean it’s not so bad?” I asked. I thought, if a man of God didn’t think anti-depressants were something to be ashamed about, maybe it really wasn’t so terrible to take them.
“You have to do what you need to do for your health,” he said. “God expects you to use all the tools you are given, and modern medicine is just one of those tools.” I was very relieved when I left his office, but still embarrassed enough to completely ignore my doctor the one time I ran into him on the metro.
Depression is like being in a round, windowless room with a very low ceiling and lots of doors. The ceiling is so low it sits on your forehead and pushes your brow down, blocking out any help from above. The doors each represent solutions to your problems but all of them are locked and you cannot exit. You cannot get out, no matter what means you try.
Within two days of being on medication the low ceiling exploded upwards. It was gone. I didn’t see a ceiling, I saw the sun. I saw the sky far, far away with all its possibilities. And the doors all opened. I could choose which door made the most sense for me, and exit to find the path that lay before me.
I had my reason back and I started to sleep deeply and well. I could breathe in and smell the fresh air or the cigarette smoke floating from the cafés, mingled with the bitter aroma of espresso. There was a warmth in my stomach and I started to feel hunger. I could taste the fruity-sour wine, the piquant mustard on crispy lettuce, the warm rich gravy in the stew.
I started to laugh again. I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed.
With new awareness to fuel me, I spent a lot of my time walking around Paris. I would leave my studies in the Sixth Arrondissement and walk to my apartment in the Sixteenth. If you don’t know Paris, arrondissements are neighborhoods and they spiral around the center of Paris (which is the First Arrondissement) like a snail.
I walked from the Sorbonne over to the Notre Dame. I crossed over the Pont Neuf and walked along the Seine to the Louvre. From there I would hike up the Champs Elysées and follow the curve of the Arc de Triomphe until I got to Avenue Kléber. That would take me to Trocadero with its great lawn and vision of the Tour Eiffel, the splendor of France. And from there I would finally arrive at my apartment, barely out of breath from a walk that took just under two hours. In that way Paris became mine.
Every Friday I would jump on the TGV and head out to Angers to stay with Olivier’s family. We spent our weekends going for bike rides along the Loire, the Fall foliage creating shady paths along the river. Or we’d see a movie and wander around the town, peering into the shops that lined the cobblestone streets that were blocked for pedestrians. I stared at the window display of the Genvieve Léthu shop for French household goods, wondering what it would be like to have a wedding registry there, hungry for such a thing to happen to me too. Were it not for the time ticking away and the uncertainty of our future, I might have been happy contemplating these things.
I was very excited to spend Christmas with his family, to be with him and part of everything for an entire week. We ate all the usual elegant holiday foods – goose stuffed with chestnuts, smoked salmon, champagne – and I lovingly wrapped all my gifts for each family member, hoping they would be pleased. Olivier’s gift to me was a small pocket atomizer – the little thing that turns cologne into a perfume that can be sprayed on. And that was it. There was no new perfume to show that he thought of me as something worth spending money on, or that he even cared what scent I was wearing. I couldn’t hide my disappointment from him or his family – dismay over the fact that our relationship seemed to be as empty in his eyes as that stupid atomizer. Christmas in France lost its magic that year.
On New Year’s Eve, I accompanied him to a military ball, and he introduced me to the general as his fiancée. Fiancée! My heart leapt at the word, and I waited with bated breath to see if he had something to ask me. But he didn’t say anything at all. As the night wore on, I questioned him about it and he explained that he had wanted to seem stable and serious, which is why he introduced me as his fiancée instead of girlfriend.
That night, the general, whom he thought so highly of, asked me to dance the waltz. The room spun by in a blur as I whirled around in his arms, my boyfriend sitting there watching us with an unreadable expression. And when the evening was over, we walked back to my room. We walked and walked late at night, too tired to speak, in the empty streets of Paris because we couldn’t get a taxi.
There was one weekend during the school year that I wasn’t able to go to Angers. I needed to accompany the children on holiday to their grandmother’s house in the country. The house was expansive and white, surrounded by rustic scenery made gorgeous by its simplicity. We could pick apples in the back yard and wander quite a distance in the trees before reaching the delimiting fence. I took horseback riding lessons with the two teenage girls at the stable just down the road, something I had always thought would be such a romantic thing to do. I should have been delighted, but I couldn’t enjoy that weekend. All I could think about was being away from Olivier for two whole weeks, and wondering whether he even missed me at all.
The year passed in this somewhat disconsolate way with a few bright memories that seemed to let me know that God was present in the darkness. I was heading up to my seventh floor studio one night after midnight. I rarely ever saw anyone that lived in those other apartments, but on this particular night the couple that was staying next to me happened to be climbing up to their studio right behind me. We exchanged hellos and entered our respective rooms.
As soon as I opened my door, I knew something was wrong. The window, which I had left cracked open earlier in the warm stagnant air, was now wide open and the curtains were blowing in the breeze. When I turned the lights on, I heard movement, a scratching sound coming from near the window. I was terrified, but gathered my courage and crept closer to the corner. I peered in between the armoire and the wall, and saw a huge black beast.
Two beady eyes stared back at me before the scratching began again with renewed vigor. I jumped back, and then – I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t sleep there with that creature, and I was afraid to go downstairs and sleep in the family’s apartment because it felt like I would be intruding on their private lives. (Véronique scolded me for not doing that very thing when she found out about it the next day).
So I knocked on the door of the couple who had just entered their apartment. At least I knew they were there and still awake – perhaps they could tell me what to do. I explained the situation in between apologies.
As it turned out, the guy happened to be the son of a veterinarian and wasn’t in the least afraid of animals. He went to have a look, figured out that it was a crow that had gotten stuck behind the armoire and didn’t know how to get out on its own. He wrapped his arm with a tee shirt, and stuck it into the crevice for the bird to latch on to. He then opened the window wider and brought his arm to the sill. After a moment’s hesitation, with the crow darting its eyes nervously at each of us in turn, it took off. I watched the bird take flight into the night air, and could barely express the depth of my gratitude and relief.
What I was feeling in that moment went beyond simple gratitude to my neighbor – it stretched its tendrils to the heavens in something resembling faith. How could I not remark that the only time I ever saw any of my neighbors in the entire year was just at a time late at night when I was all alone and desperately needed help. And the person that had been provided for me was just the one who was able to give it. It seemed like more than coincidence to me.
I had come to read the Bible in my quiet moments, ever since it had been given to me in Taiwan. I had also been put in touch with another Christian counselor, who lived in a suburb of Paris. We spoke a little bit more about God (at my request) than about my troubles, and I was watching my faith grow with some degree of surprise. One time she told me that I could pray Jesus into my heart to be saved. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you need to do anything other than pray Jesus into your heart to be saved,” she said emphatically.
I had heard this before and didn’t have any particular feeling or conviction attached to it. But I thought I should perhaps give it a go. I was walking down the street as I decided this, and I felt kind of funny, but I said to myself, “Okay. If this is what I’m supposed to do, I guess I’ll try it.”
So I took a deep breath and said inwardly. “Um. Jesus?” I kept walking. “I open the door to my heart so you can come in.”
Suddenly I felt a little sick and I stopped walking. No, I felt more than sick – I felt invaded, and started wringing my hands away from my body, retracting quickly, “No, no – get out. Get out! I don’t know you.”
I may not have been ready for any kind of commitment, but I was searching for something. I went to the midweek Bible studies that were held at the American Cathedral since I was never in Paris on Sundays. I remember once that the subject of pre-marital sex came up in these studies and I said to the minister, “But … that doesn’t actually apply in today’s world.”
He replied gently, “Well – it’s supposed to.” I was very surprised to hear it, but was inspired to try the celibacy route for a couple of nights while sleeping in my boyfriend’s bed . . .
I was finding out during this time that I wasn’t able to live the life of a religious person, but I persevered in some kind of a religious pursuit because I just loved the Bible. And I began to wonder … did God actually love me? I mean, did he even … notice me? Of all the billions of people wandering around the earth?
One day I was musing about this as I stood at my window, staring out at the cloudy sky and grey tiles of the rooftops flooding the Parisian skyline. My heart was suddenly filled with a small hope, and I finally spoke to him directly for the first time in my adulthood.
“Do you even know I’m here? Do you love me?”
At that exact moment, a huge ray of sun broke through the grey clouds. I could see it piercing a hole in the sky as it came to settle directly on my face. I was so astonished, my face lit up with joy. “Thank you. Thank you,” I whispered.
And then as quickly as it had come, the light was swallowed up by the grey clouds again.
A couple months before I left Paris, I was strolling down Avenue George V – exploring, dreaming of becoming a French wife and mother, examining the shops as was my usual custom. A woman stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes, I’m American,” I replied.
“Well,” she began with a warm smile, “I just wanted to know if you would like to come to my church. It’s really great – lots of young people and English speakers too. We have Bible studies …” she trailed away as she looked at me expectantly. I could hear in her accent that she was American too.
Still, I shook my head regretfully. There was no way I was ever going to go to a church where a stranger had invited me. Becoming the kind of person who would do that was just incomprehensible. Not only did I mistrust what they would teach me, but that would also mean that I had become a religious person, blindly following the indoctrinated masses. That whole scenario was beyond contemplation.
But somehow, I was touched in spite of it all that she had reached out to me, and in the past year my heart had really softened towards all things that pertained to God. So I smiled at her to soften my rejection, and said, “Keep up the good work though!”
I was actually encouraging someone to share their faith! Something had shifted in my heart, and it seemed like a major fault line was forming between who I had been and who I was becoming. And as the tectonic plates of my soul shifted, God remained unmoved.
That was the third time he called.